Since artists first began reproducing their works, the art print world has been rife with technical status symbols.
In addition to the names of the media artists use, such as etchings and lithographs, terms such as "artist proof," "printer's proof," "bon a tirer," "signed and numbered by the artist" and "limited edition" have long affected the cachet of a print-and the price collectors are willing to pay.
Now add to the list "Giclee," a French term coined by a California printmaker for high-tech, high-quality reproductions made with a computer and an ink jet printer.
Jack Duganne, owner of Duganne Editions in Santa Monica, Calif., said he came up with the idea when an artist for whom he had created an ink-jet edition asked him what she should call it.
"I was looking for a French or Italian word, because so many art techniques have foreign names," Duganne says. Since the ink jet's nozzle ("gicleur" in French) literally sprays the paper with color, he settled on the word "Giclee," meaning something that was sprayed.
A growing number of artists are using computer-based reproduction, including Jim Dine, Robert Rauschenberg, Kiki Smith, Doug and Mike Starn, and William Wegman. A Giclee reproduction by artist Chuck Close entitled "Roy II" was the the final work in the artist's 1998 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
In the Giclee process, the original work is scanned into a computer, where the digital image can be touched up, scaled up or down and and then reproduced on artist's paper or cloth by an ink jet printer. These scanners and printers are larger and far more expensive versions of the devices available for home PCs.
Compared to its closest rival, photo-offset print, a Giclee's colors are more vivid, and the reproduction can be more accurate than any other method - particularly since artists can choose materials as disparate as Japanese rice paper and canvas.
"A watercolor on watercolor paper turned into a Giclee on watercolor paper is almost indistinguishable from the original," says Henry Wilhelm, president of Wilhelm Imaging Research in Grinnell, Iowa, which has been testing the durability of ink jet prints.
William Christenberry, a painter and photographer in Washington, has used the ink jet process to create editions of his work for several years.
"I like what I'be seen of the dyes and how they saturate the papers. They have a very seductive quality on watercolor paper," he says.
The major drawback of ink jet prints for artists and collectors is fading. The most durable pigments can't be ground fine enough fit through an ink jet printer's tiny nozzles.
"The inks were designed for brilliant color reproduction, with no concern for light permanence," Wilhelm says. "They were intended for offices, to create pie charts and hand-outs at meetings. They were not conceived by the manufacturers for creating fine art."
In fact, the first fine art use of ink jet printing occured 1991, when musician and photographer Graham Nash began making sample prints of his own work through the giclee process. (Nash tried to coin the term "digigraph" for the final product, but that didn't take.)
Through his Santa Monica print studio, Nash Editions (www.nasheditions.com), Nash and partner Mac Holbert began creating ink jet editions for other photographers - but some have had problems with colors fading or changing. "Some of the bright colors have been lost," Holbert said. "Blacks have been the most problematic, turning sepia or magenta."
Those inks, when finally tested, had a life expectancy of 6 months to 3 years. Since then, Wilhelm says, manufacturers have created inks that can hold up under light for as long as 36 years.
"The next generation of inks should hold up for 60, maybe 75 or 80 years" as long as they're placed under bright light for prolonged periods, he predicted.
But a Giclee's durability also depends on the artist's underlying material. Canvas or watercolor papers treated with gesso do not absorb, and may react negatively to ink, while untreated cloth may absorb colors too well, losing their briliance.
There is still enough experimentation going on, Wilhelm says, that anyone thinking of purchasing a Giclee should ask about the type of ink and paper used, and how they were tested. Buyers should ask for some kind of guarantee.
"I have a replacement policy," says Jack Duganne. "If a piece fades, I will replace it at no charge. And I feel confident in this knowing that, as the technology improves, the problem will eventually disappear."
Other printmakers note that replacments are likely to be more durable than original prints because of improvements in ink and materials.
The International Association of Fine Art Digital Printmakers also requires its 43 members to disclose this information in writing and have replacement policies.
While Duganne is happy that his term for the new medium has caught on, it did cause some embarrassment - of all places - Fin rance. It seems that in French street slang, Giclee refers a male orgasm.
"What, do I claim to know French?" Duganne says.
For more information on Giclees and links to on-line Giclee galleries, contact the IAFADP at 888-239-9099 www.iafadp.org.